From the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: A concrete universal: Marx’s ‘Capital’–Part 2

August 28, 2017

From the September-October 2017 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: Continuing to mark the 150th anniversary of Karl Marx’s Capital, Vol. I, we present in two parts lightly edited excerpts from “Marx’s Transcendence of and Return to Hegel’s Dialectic,” a 1968 draft chapter for Dunayevskaya’s book Philosophy and Revolution. This section was titled “A Concrete Universal: Marx’s Capital.” The whole can be found in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #4227.

by Raya Dunayevskaya

Continued from previous issue

Take his category, labor power, which was not in the Grundrisse or Critique of Political Economy or the pamphlets;[1] in a word, hadn’t been fully worked out until Capital itself was. The non-existence of the category before his main theoretical work was completed was surely not due to any question about his “knowing” or not “knowing” about the vital differences between labor, as activity, and labor, as commodity. He no sooner broke from bourgeois society back in 1843 than he knew that. He kept writing about it, lecturing on it, publishing his lecture “Wage-Labor and Capital” in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung when the 1848 revolutions were still fresh.

What was at issue, in his mind, was the fact that a new stage of generalization, a new stage of cognition that gives birth to an original category, liberates you both theoretically and practically; it is a sort of point of intersection in history itself which permits a view of the future because the past and present have been so fully comprehended that the future inherent in the present can emerge.

And with that category, labor power, it was not only its appearance as a “name” for a commodity—a most unique commodity, the only one that was constantly exploited to produce more, and produced all the value and surplus value—but that it was a power as well. It was a power not only because it then became conscious that the machine that was exploiting it had feet of clay, could drive labor, but itself could do nothing but “yield up” what labor was already materialized in it, for though “loaded with value” it itself “creates no new value.”[2]

Postcard rendering of the founding of the First International, which partly grew out of workers’ international solidarity with the North against slavery in the U.S. Civil War, and in turn had an impact on the struggle for the eight-hour day and Marx’s restructuring of Capital. Marx stands near left edge.

Postcard rendering of the founding of the First International, which partly grew out of workers’ international solidarity with the North against slavery in the U.S. Civil War, and in turn had an impact on the struggle for the eight-hour day and Marx’s restructuring of Capital. Marx stands near left edge.

It was a power also because, as contrasted with when labor first entered the factory and found his voice “stifled in the storm and stress of the process of production” (p. 258), it now united with others right at the point of production, in the cooperative labor process machinofacture had to introduce, and was further not only disciplined by that instrumentality, but united to act, inside and outside the factory.

Marx’s decision, therefore, to add a section on “The Working Day,” a decision he didn’t make until 1860, had further consequences in expanding the power of the proletariat as historic and philosophic force (p. 330):

In place of the pompous catalogue of the ‘inalienable rights of man’ comes the Magna Charta of a legally limited working day which shall make clear when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins. Quantum mutatus ab illo! (What a change in the picture!)

Naturally, all those decisive factors of reality, as contrasted to mere research or arguments with other theoreticians in the 1850s, led to a change also in the concept of technology: “It would be possible to write quite a history of the inventions made since 1830, for the sole purpose of supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working class” (p. 476).

Once capitalism has moved from the need to extend the hours of the working day to extract unpaid hours of labor, to being able to extract the surplus within the same working day—and it is the development of machinery that has achieved this feat—it is first then Marx begins referring to machinofacture as “the specifically capitalistic mode of production.”

Concrete, concrete, concrete—this sums up the scrupulousness with which Marx follows the machine’s development, never considers it outside of its historic, capitalistic context, and proceeds to show how “the machine, which is the starting point of the industrial revolution, supersedes the workman” (p. 410).

Because, says Marx, “Technology also discovered the few fundamental forms of motion…necessarily taken by every productive action of the human body” (p. 532), the automaton could now become “an organized system of machines to which motion is communicated by the transmitting mechanism, from a central automaton” (p. 416) and thereby become “objective” so that “the laborer becomes a mere appendage to an already existing material condition of production” (p. 421).

What is to be watched, however, is not the machine, but what it does to the workman who is subjected to the “uniform motion of the instruments of labor,” for it is this “which gives rise to a barrack discipline, which is elaborated into a complete system in the factory” (p. 463), where capital erects its own code “like a private legislator” (p. 463).

In a word, the whole system of capitalist production “based on the fact that the workman sold his labor power as a commodity” (p. 470) ends by having “the instrument of labor strike down the laborer”; “Hence, the character of independence and estrangement which the capitalist mode of production as a whole gives to the instruments of labor and to the product, as against the workman, is developed, by means of machine, into a thorough antagonism” (pp. 472, 471).…


…Where Hegel’s Absolutes are always high points, Marx’s are always collapses, as is the nature of the law of motion of capitalist society. And where Hegel’s Absolutes are achievable within the existing framework, Marx’s tear up the existing society by its roots. “The expropriators are expropriated” (p. 837). The destruction of the old is total. “The negation of the negation” (ibid.) allows in but the faintest glimmer of the new; no blueprints of the future there, much less “The eternal Idea, in full fruition of its essence, eternally sets itself to work, engenders and enjoys itself as Absolute Mind.”[3] We approach the proletarian revolution and there stop; even for a sight of “the storming of the heavens”[4] we must read the historic works, not Capital.

But all this proves the exact opposite of what it is meant to prove. It is proof only of the fact that Marx did not go in for abstractions, that for him “the truth is concrete,” and that he was concerned with one, and only one, historic social formation: capitalism. Its absolute is its downfall. The logic of Capital is the dialectic of bourgeois society—state capitalism at one pole and the revolt of the proletariat at the other.

But in the same manner as Marx’s development of the form of the commodity was related to Hegel’s syllogistic Universal, Particular, Individual, or the Doctrine of the Notion in general, so “the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation” is based on Hegel’s Absolute Idea, made concrete for one very concrete, very specific, very transitory historic social order.

Marx would never have devoted no less than a quarter of a century to that “dismal science,” political economy, unless, in its Marxistically reconstructed form, it helped discern the law of motion of the capitalistic social formation. The reconstructed science meant, however, that not only did his original discoveries make the difference, but that these original economic categories were so philosophically rooted that it created a new unity out of economics, philosophy, revolution, on a specific historic plane.

This new historic plane was not exhausted within the period of Marx’s life not because he was a “prophet,” but because the historic rationality Marx discovered as immanent in the life of man meant, in turn, that it is living men who work out the meaning of philosophy by making the theory of liberation and the struggle to be free a unity.

So much is free man the true subject of history that Marx called the period in which he lived, and the one in which we still live, the pre-history of mankind, for man’s true history does not begin until he is free and gets to develop in full his universal talents. In a word, there is no separation between theory and practice, or philosophy and revolution. Rather, it is because historic rationality is immanent in the actions of men that we can get a glimpse of the future, and it is this anticipation which Marx left to us, not as prophecy, but as task….

[1] The pamphlets are “Wage-Labor and Capital” and “Value, Price, and Profit.” —Ed.

[2] Capital, Vol. I (Charles H. Kerr, 1906), p. 423.

[3] Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, para. 577.

[4] Quoted from a letter from Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann, April 12, 1871. Dunayevskaya is referring especially to Marx’s The Civil War in France. —Ed.

One thought on “From the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: A concrete universal: Marx’s ‘Capital’–Part 2

  1. What is a concept? Normally, we understand ‘concept’ as a category, as a definition whose scientific value is its capacity –or not– to describe reality,to “give account” of it. However, what we see here, when Dunayevskaya discusses ‘labor power’ in Marx, is that such “name” is no mere definition, but a living concept, which speaks of the struggle of men and women to get rid of alienated labor. At the same time, it is profoundly objective, for it comes from the analysis of the contradiction between dead and living labor brought up by machinofacture, that is, by the “specifically capitalistic mode of production”.

    This total unification of objective and subjective –that is to say, of the contradictory structure of reality and the will of men and women to overcome such contradiction, to become freer– is what brings Dunayevskaya to say of Marx that his “original economic categories were so philosophically rooted that [he] created a new unity out of economics, philosophy, revolution, on a specific historic plane”.

    Philosophy is thus the ground of Marx’s economics. His “critique of political economy” is, at the same time, a philosophy of revolution that, when merged with (worked out with, born within) the actual struggles for freedom, it becomes the unity of theory and practice, of philosophy and revolution, that constitutes the revolutionary task of our time.

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